How to Hack Your Online Habits

It’s over a month into the new year…how ‘bout those offline resolutions?

Having trouble keeping your phone out of the bedroom? Still using Instagram for too many hours per day? If you’ve already slipped up, don’t sweat it. Only about 8% of Americans actually achieve their New Year’s resolutions. Sticking with resolutions is really about forming new habits; that’s why it’s so difficult!

Photo by rawpixel via Pixabay

Success begins with understanding how habits work. Based on the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, habits follow a 3-step loop:

  1. Cue — something that triggers your brain to automatically take an action
  2. Routine — the behavior that follows the cue, the thing you want to change
  3. Reward — a positive outcome that tells your brain the routine is worth remembering

This cycle is our brain’s way of chunking steps into automatic routines in order to conserve brain power for more intensive functions. Using this knowledge, you can figure out what habit is getting in the way of reaching your goal and hack it. The first step begins with awareness of what triggers the routine. This may take some introspection to properly pinpoint.


Let’s say your goal is to use your phone less before bed. Picture your evening routine and try to tease out what activity is triggering your technology usage. For the sake of this example, let’s imagine you’ve just finished washing dishes after dinner and you and the family settle down on the couch. Perhaps you bury yourselves in smartphones or maybe Netflix takes center stage. Before you know it, you’re deep into a binge fest of screen time and it’s well past bedtime. When applying the Habit Loop, this breaks down into:

  1. Cue = post-dinner time lull
  2. ​Routine = move to the couch, turn on the TV or surf on phone/tablet
  3. Reward = effortless entertainment

Now that a potential cue has been identified, you’ll then have to ask yourself whether the reward is what you are actually craving. Is it truly effortless entertainment? Or perhaps you’re actually just craving social time with your family. Once you’ve identified the reward you’re seeking, experiment with different routines that could deliver that reward.

For example, if it is indeed effortless entertainment you’re seeking after dinner:
Try switching the medium to audio instead and play a podcast. (Just be sure you don’t have it on auto-play of the next episode!)

If instead, it’s social time with your family you’re wanting:
Switch from moving to the couch to taking a family walk or playing a game together. Find something that is time-bound that can get you to bed earlier but still satisfies your craving of socializing with your family.

Let’s recap:

  • Reflect on what cue could be triggering your old habit that’s in the way of your goal. It may take a few attempts to properly identify this.
  • Gut-check whether the reward you are getting is actually what you are craving.
  • Try a new, healthier routine that could get you that reward.

Identifying the right cue-and-reward pair could take several attempts, but don’t get discouraged! It will enable you to have more self-awareness, which is half the battle. What can help is tracking your behavior by jotting down the number of times you catch yourself doing your bad habit, such as the Netflix or phone binges.

You’ll know you’ve successfully hacked your habit when after 15 minutes of trying your new routine, you no longer miss your phone. We’d love to hear what new routines you are trying, especially with regards to more mindful technology usage.


Live Offline envisions a world in which face-to-face conversation is valued above social media “connections.” Sign up for our monthly newsletter at www.letsliveoffline.com!